Saturday, July 25, 2020

Classic Traveller: Striker

Rod Thompson suggested that I look into Striker for Classic Traveller's vehicular combat system.  I picked up the first edition and it turned out to be quite interesting!  My points for comparison are Stargrunt, Dirtside, Battletech, OGRE, and Epic.

If you want to do Hammer's Slammers with Classic Traveller, this is The Correct Thing.

This is the sort of system that I would have adored in high school and college.  Now...  maybe it would work better with a computer for a referee.  Looking at the structure of orders that you can give a normal-initiative unit, it looks a lot like writing a program.

The approach to dealing with orders and initiative is interesting and makes a lot of sense for a hybrid wargame-RPG.  I could definitely see it being frustrating and a fair bit of overhead if not automated, though.

I like that, compared to Stargrunt, infantry operates in stands.  I dislike that you still have to track the state of every infantryman.  The scale is generally more zoomed-out than Stargrunt but more zoomed-in than Dirtside, which I think is "about right".

Vehicle damage is more complicated than Dirtside and less complicated than Battletech.  I think Mongoose Traveller's vehicle damage system is a bit simpler.

The layout and organization do not lend themselves well to reading through and understanding the system.  All of the tables are at the very end, and the rules are depth-first rather than establishing general principles and then enumerating exceptions and special cases (so, for example, indirect fire missions come between infantry firing and resolution of damage).  A lot of things that I would ordinarily consider "rules" are sort of punted out into tables which are far from the relevant text.  I feel like after a cursory read I still didn't have a good idea of how firing on vehicles works.

I was ever so slightly disappointed that there was no fission powerplant option - it would've been funny to build a fission ramjet missile-drone where you don't even need a payload, just a powerplant that explodes on impact.  And support for AI, of course, is negligible (drones are remote-controlled).  Support for enormous OGRE-style tanks seems fine but they will need a lot of crew.  No mechs / walker suspension type but it wouldn't be too hard to add.  On the upside, I'm pretty sure you can build gatling mortars with nuclear shells.  Not that you should, but the point of design systems is designing ridiculous things (...  right?).

I'm...  not sure if there's a way to arm infantry with nuclear weapons.  I think it might be possible to put one in a man-portable missile, but there's the additional requirement for vehicle-carried nukes that they be shielded storage containers with a bunch of extra mass.  So it would be dodgy.

On the other hand, you could absolutely give an infantryman a 9kg 8.5cm mortar round and a detonator, and he could carry it around at full movement speed under the encumbrance rules.  I'm not clear on the morale implications of suicide units, but if you want to model ISIS, infested terrans, or banelings, it wouldn't be hard (though the bang on a single 8.5cm mortar round is not spectacular; at TL5 they're comparable to a TL11 rifle grenade, while at TL11 parity they have about double the blast area and slightly better armor penetration.  And that's before the errata that nerfed TL scaling on HE artillery like that).

No flamethrowers?  How am I to werf flammen and/or barbeque aliens?  Plasma guns with 250m effective range just aren't quite the same.

It would be funny to add a "biological metabolism" powerplant type to the design system for eg carnifexes and other vehicle-sized bugs, with range/endurance calculated based on carried fat stores (or...  alcohol bladders, since it's almost as energy-dense as fats, and alcohol-based metabolisms would be funny).  I guess it's also worth considering that if an animal can operate in vacuum, it must also be carrying its own oxidizers?  And in order to not overheat in the insulation of vacuum, maybe you pump your heat into your metabolism's exhaust gases, which you then vent?

I hadn't looked at the rules for combat on planets with odd characteristics until the oxygen question got me curious and Striker does indeed ban air-breathing engines in certain atmosphere types (and lasers are more effective in such atmospheres, for lack of scatter).  Also: rules for tiny worlds where the horizon might only be 2km away and there's very little gravity.

It tickles my fancy that on very small worlds, artillery pieces could attain muzzle velocities higher than escape velocity (eg, the Paris Gun had a muzzle velocity of almost 1700 m/s, while Pluto's escape velocity is only around 1200 m/s), and what goes up might not come back down if your smallest available unit of propellant is too big.  Not that Striker has rules for this, but it's the sort of thing the system gets you thinking about.

I like that you can equip a weapon with multiple types of fire control.  I suspect the intention here is to let you equip lasers with both direct fire and point defense fire control, but I like that it would let you do Starcraft-style siege tanks that can fire both as artillery and direct fire.

The whole initiative system might actually make adding eg AI and weird command structures like tyranids easy.  Your low-initiative AI troops need constant supervision and wedge (or revert to instinctive behavior) if not actively controlled.  Your normal-initiative AI troops, your armored vehicles with an expert system in them, need orders.  Maybe giving them orders takes double the normal time because you have to be very careful with your language, but they're immune to panic.  The existing Drone Vehicle rules actually work just fine for this sort of AI.  And then high-initiative AIs are just like high-initiative meatbrains, with full sentience and autonomy, but self-awareness comes at the cost of morale.

The inclusion of pikes and broadswords on the melee weapons table makes me want to abuse this system by running medieval combats with it.  We need shields, bows, and javelins too though.  Aaand maybe to change the ground-scale so that your stand of 4 guys with pikes isn't covering a linear area of 30m.

(Bonus: biological powerplant, legged suspension, megawatt plasma cannon "breath weapon" dragons.  Not that powering a megawatt with biological scaling laws is really workable, you'd need to mass a couple of hundred thousand metric tons to have that sort of output continuously, but it's fun to play with)

Come to think of it, since there are revolvers, early gatling guns, and rules for riding animals, Wild West combats might be viable too.  Tweak bolt-action rifles down to lever-action and add bows and you're good to go (pardner).

Zhodani teleport-commandos in battledress with plasma guns are a daunting prospect.

I think I mostly like the handling of infantry armor penetration here, where you roll 2d6, add the weapon's armor penetration score, subtract the target's armor score, and index into a table of hit severity.  You make tradeoffs in ammunition selection, since high-explosive ammunition does more severe hits but has lower penetration than sabot.  This is how they dodge the problem that Mongoose Traveller has with armor as DR, where anything that can hurt a guy in battle dress kills anyone else instantly - sabot ammunition does less damage to lightly-armored guys in Striker than HE ammunition, but has a better chance of hurting the guys in heavy armor.

I'm a little surprised that I'm not seeing any rules for readying actions, like Stargrunt's overwatch?  But I guess in a system that is all about orders, "go to that hill and fire on any enemies that come within xx range" is just a thing you can do without a special rule maybe?  Is that the intent of the segment of the fire phase where the other player's units fire, to do fire in reaction to your movement?  I wish the rules were clearer about this; the Indirect Fire section has a paragraph on "When Units Fire", but there isn't one like that for Direct Fire.  There are also basically no sidebar-style examples of how rules are supposed to work, and looking for after-action reports or youtube videos was, of course, fruitless.  I guess I the old Citizens of the Imperium forums are probably the right venue for this question?

I think the combat rules are rather heavy for use as a mass combat add-on to Traveller RPG play, and the command-and-control is a little heavy/annoying for use as a miniatures combat game.  But it's a thought-provoking set of rules and would probably be a fun toolkit to fiddle with.

Bonus: buried in the back of the Advanced Rules is a section on computing the planetary domestic product of different world types in Traveller, for the purpose of figuring their military spending, of course.  This would be a hilarious launching point for "domain" gameplay.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Classic Traveller: Mercenary

Schlock Mercenary is nearing the end of its 20-year run (with no missed daily updates, which is damned impressive).  Threads are coming together and I decided to read through a bunch of the archives to remind myself who was where why, and it all got me thinking about Traveller, specifically the Mercenary supplement.

I've always been a little disappointed with Mongoose's Mercenary supplement, but I was reminded of my project of reading through the Classic Traveller core and how parts of it compared favorably to some of Mongoose's material, and decided to give Classic Traveller Book 4: Mercenary a read too.

CT Merc is 60 pages to MGT's 110.

I always thought MGT Merc's mercenary-specific careers were sort of dumb.  I am pleased with their absence in CT.

I rolled up a couple of characters with Mercenary's character generation rules.  Of the three, one failed to reenlist after his first term (spent almost entirely in garrison) with few skills and no rank (but great stats!  such a waste), one died of snake-eyes on a survival roll during an internal security assignment, and the last rolled Commando School, a bunch of combat assignments, got covered in medals and skills, and made E9, but because he never rolled Officer Candidate School he was still Rank 0 as far as mustering out benefit rolls were concerned.  I think the mercenary chargen rules are more likely to generate characters who are high-skill but poor than the core rules, where promotions are both the source of half of your skill rolls and half of your benefit rolls in an "optimum" career (except scouts, which probably end up closer to mercs in terms of "high skill but poor").

Getting the survival and promotion bonuses is nice, but getting the bonuses for Special Assignments is massive if you want to rack up skills or actually get officer rank (ordinarily you only have a 1-in-36 chance of getting each of OCS and commando school per year, which means that in a 4-5 term career you will probably see only one or the other, but with the special assignments bonus from high int/edu that probably goes up to 1-in-18 for commando and 1-in-18 for OCS, which means you will probably roll both in expectation).

Chargen is somewhat more tedious than base, especially if you don't have special assignment bonuses.  I didn't roll any marines, but for army, you will roll garrison assignments about half the time (for infantry, anyway), with automatic survival but no chance for skills.  Armor and artillery arms are more likely to roll a Training assignment with automatic survival and a decent chance of skills, but because there's no vehicle combat system some of those skills seem like they'd be sort of hard to use / hand-wavy.  The support arm, which has access to some nice skills like Medic and Computer, is even more likely to roll garrison assignments.  This is part of why commando training is so important - it allows you to transfer to the commando arm, which has a good skill list and only a 1-in-6 chance of being stuck in garrison, so you get more assignments where you can get skills (but this also means that you have to make four survival rolls per four-year term, so it's high-risk high-reward).

Some inconsistencies - rolling for assignment each year on page 4 says that you may add +1 to the roll if you have 8 Int, but under the General Assignments table on page 6 it says 8 Edu instead.

A Mercenator script, like the old ACKS Henchinator, could be pretty fun for spewing out dudes for PC mercenary companies to hire.

I think it's neat that they have rules about what goes on an NPC's "resume" that players would get to see.  But generating piles of NPCs is sooo slow and then sometimes they die right as they were getting good.  I also like that there are salaries and shares for characters of various ranks, which supports both PCs hiring on with NPC units (there are rules for this too - again, senior enlisted gets kind of shafted) and PC units hiring NPC help.

There are a couple of sample tickets, but a system for generating random tickets (as MGT's Merc has) is absent.  I always felt like Mongoose Merc's ticket generation was just a bit too much and the results weren't quite coherent enough.  But having some lighter weight stuff for generating tickets might be nice, striking a middle ground.

Mongoose Merc is much more...  accountanty about maintenance costs for equipment.

Instruction is a very funny skill - Instruction 1 seems to be useful only for training raw recruits, and higher levels of Instruction are still only useful if you have another high skill (which you might not), but the rules are very cautious about it.  I'm not even sure it would be wildly unreasonably to permit a character with Instruction n to teach Instruction n-1 to other player characters; most parties will be lucky to have a character with Instruction 2 at all (although I suppose that if one is automating the production of new mercenaries, that might change).

I'm a little confused about "group hits by automatic fire" - is this supposed to apply to HE rounds fired from light rifles like the ACR, or is it intended for LAG (anti-materiel), grenades, and artillery?  Because combining multiple attacks from automatic fire with group hits from automatic fire with group hits from HE bullets sounds like a lot of stuff to resolve for a single attack by a regular rifleman.

Fiddled a bit with the abstract battle system.  No choices, very amenable to automation.  Doesn't link up as nicely to the rest of the book as I'd like - a force's efficiency seems pretty important and like it should be determinable statistically (for a high-detail company), with the option to roll it randomly for low-detail enemy forces?  The only other mentions of efficiency are about having too many direct reports, and in the efficiency of field artillery crews, but there's nothing numeric.

More odd inconsistencies with the weapons, where probability of jamming a machine gun doesn't depend on heavy weapons skill, but probability of jamming a gauss machine gun does.

Since armor is no longer DR and there aren't rules for firing on vehicles (unless they were in core and I've forgotten), a lot of these heavier weapon damage listings seem kind of superfluous (instead of listing them as "lol u ded").  I do like that meson artillery is just "all targets in area destroyed".

RAM grenade launchers only have a 3-round magazine and no autofire mode.  Sorry again Alex.

Unclear what happens to hand grenades that you miss the to-hit roll with.

I think the biggest thing this book needs is vehicle combat, but that's probably because my expectations for space mercenaries were set by Hammer's SlammersOmer to the rescue.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Five Torches Deep: Homesteads Review

At the end of my long series reviewing Five Torches Deep, I joked that I should review their Homesteads supplement.  I skimmed it over lunch a bit ago and by the end a review seemed unavoidable.

Homesteads has some nice ideas but there is at least one gaping hole in its implementation.  Like a "did they really just spend a sixth of the product doing setup for a subsystem and then leave all the actual mechanics as an exercise to the reader?" gaping hole.

Homesteads is twelve (12) pages including the cover and the table of contents, so ten pages of content for your $4.  I was startled by the short pagecount for the price.  I thought 5TD's core's 36 pages of content for $10 was steep, and this is an even higher price per page.  We get half a page of intent and overview, a page and a half on farms and crops, two pages on upgradeable town structures, a page on improvements to farms and town, a page with a table for adventure hook generation, two pages of carousing table, one page for another rubik's cube generator, and a final page with how to customize this material.

Unlike 5TD core, no playtesters are listed in the credits.

The first two pages, I was pretty much on board.  5TD as written seems like it is in need of a gold sink, and giving people XP for spending it on town stuff is reasonable (ACKS gives XP for spending on castles, as another example).  Their numbers for medieval farm productivity were in the realm of the reasonable.  I was surprised to find an incomplete sentence under the heading "The Homestead" - I think the text in this product is not as well edited as 5TD core's text was.

Page 2 gives us the abstraction of plots, approximately 5 acre areas of land sufficient to be worked by, and to support, a person.  It suggests that in order to support more people, you can buy upgrades like oxen and plows and such.

Page 3 talks about crops.  It is suggested that crop types should have different viability based on terrain of plots.  Crops have a numeric measure of quality, which it is suggested should be impacted by a couple of factors.  And there's a table of possible semi-magic effects that crops could have, like giving you a bonus to certain rolls for a day or healing a couple HP.

And then we hit page 4, which abruptly switches to town buildings.  This was where I went "hold up".  They don't provide anything concrete in the farm rules.  There's no mechanic for determining quality of a given crop.  All these factors like seed quality and crop rotation and terrain type that they want you to take into account never get turned into numbers.  Spoiler: the farm improvements on page 6, like plows and irrigation, don't have any concrete effects or concrete prices either.  Neither do any of the building or town improvements.

At first I thought my pdf reader had glitched out and failed to render a page, but this is consistent with the table of contents.

There aren't even tables for generating crop types, which seems like it would've been a reasonable thing to have.  Two d6 tables per terrain type, one with some plant names and the other with some effects that make sense for that terrain type (swamp plants more likely to give you bonus to saves vs poison and disease, mountain plants more likely to give you bonus to climbing).  Is that too much to ask?  Instead every DM is left to fend entirely for himself in inventing fantasy plants.

As an exercise, I wrote a draft of what I would've expected to see.

On to town structures.  Each structure has a tier, 1 to 5.  Upgrading them costs money and takes time and makes them give you better stuff.  I rather like the art for the buildings.  There are lots of little details like the guy passed out drunk on the patio in front of the tavern, and the layout on the forge looks pretty reasonable.

It's really weird that they keep referring to Goods in bold caps like they do Supply.  Goods are mentioned in the introduction as "tools and services" but this is never expanded upon.

Smithies can repair damaged arms and armor and craft mundane equipment (though not martial weapons or heavy armor without upgrades).  When upgraded, output improves and they can specialize into producing certain kinds of things (allowing eg martial weapons and armor) and masterwork items.  Notably, smithies produce items much faster than most characters can.  A specialized smithy can produce an item in two days, which is equivalent to never failing a check under 5TD's crafting rules.  So it seems that NPCs are playing by different rules than PCs.

Lodges let you butcher monster corpses into Supply, and can hunt for Supply if you don't bring them anything.  It's weird though, because the total weekly output of the lodge is the same either way, but the text says that Supply from monsters can be used for crafting and spell components, while Supply from hunting and foraging is "mixed food and components".  I don't know what to make of this.  Is Supply a unified abstraction, or are you supposed to track different kinds of Supply points?  But if they're not different kinds of Supply, then why would you ever bother hauling monster corpses back to town if the total yield is the same either way?

I guess the crop mechanics already sort of break the unified abstraction of Supply - if a farm is expected to produce a certain surplus Supply of a certain kind of crop, then Supply must have types.  Maybe that's why they didn't actually develop the crop production mechanics to their natural conclusion?

The lodge also has a mechanic for going out in the woods and finding mundane plants and animals for you.  Maybe you're supposed to use it to find seeds for native crops?  I thought it was funny that their example was a banana slug.  I don't know why you'd pick that.

Taverns improve your natural healing rate and generate rumors.  The healing rate scales up exponentially, so a tier 5 tavern lets you heal 16 HP per night, which is a lot in a system where a max-level dwarf fighter only has about 51 HP in expectation.  Upgraded taverns attract potential retainers and let you heal ability score damage at a rate of 1 point per week.  Aha, a clarification around recovery of ability score damage from maiming!

The market's main function of attracting merchants who sell useful stuff seems kind of useless in the absence of a table of prices.  It is interesting in that this suggests that you should be able to buy equipment, but "weapons" are an example of "specialized or exotic" equipment that requires a specialized vendor who takes up a market stall and may or may not be in town on any given week, and you can only have one of those per tier.  PCs can also invest in markets, yielding a 5% return per tier every 1d6 weeks thereafter.  There aren't any limits on this mechanic, although I don't think you can get your principal back.  Exploiting the power of compound interest is left as an exercise for the reader.

The fifth building isn't a building with mechanics, just a bunch of suggestions filed under the name "Oddity".

Page 6 is the no-op improvements that I mentioned in my complaint about farming.

Page 7 is a table of farm-related adventure hooks, a table of town-related hooks, and two tables for determining relationship between NPCs and reason for it.  I like that a rival adventuring party raiding the town is on the town hooks table.  This is a marked improvement over 5TD Core's random encounter table.  "One structure's expert has a week of incredulous productivity" was very funny though.  The NPC feelings tables can generate some results that don't make much sense, and if you used them heavily the ensuing network would probably lead to very inconsistent characterizations.

Pages 8-9 are a d% carousing table.  Spend 1000 gp for a roll.  1-40 are bad things (up to including "you seriously injured yourself, roll in the maiming table", "you fell into a coma", "you lost all your treasure", and "1d6 random structures burn down", which could be up to 90kgp in lost upgrades), 41-60 are mostly minor except for waking up enslaved, 61-100 are good things (up to and including "acquire an artifact", "gain a class feature", and "all structures improve one tier").  I think my favorite is "Access a hidden part of the dungeon."  ...  while carousing.  What's the intent here?  You wake up hungover in a hidden part of the dungeon?  Or you accessed it and returned and now you know the route, but a whole bunch of gameplay got skipped?  So this is a very high-entropy table and not necessarily a very associative table.  The negative consequences cannot be mitigated and are severe enough that I would not expect my past players to use it (certainly not regularly), because they were risk-averse.

I thought it was cute that the carousing art included a cat with nursing kittens.


So I started looking at the carousing art more and then I realized that there was no meat, not even a bone for the dog.

Hey human you got anything worth eating?
I dunno, I figure if you drop a thousand GP a head carousing, you probably get a whole hog each and have something to spare for this poor pup.

Root vegetables: the repast of heroes.
That fighter is thinking: I sure hope she's casting Conjure Protein.  I can't be going catabolic, I'm supposed to bludgeon some monsters to death tomorrow.
Page 10, we get another rubik's cube generator for the layout of towns and the areas around town.  Describing anything in rural medieval fantasy as "suburban" seems odd to me, and it also seems odd that you could end up with two "dense urban cores" distant from each other, but whatever.  The art for the town and region maps is quite nice.

Page 11 has a table for "stuff that happened while you were out adventuring" (though some of the town hooks table entries also seem to fall into that category), and some reskinning advice, most of which is pretty trivial.

And that's it.

So what do you get, really, for your $4?  Two pages of usable mechanical content (the buildings), one page of decent tables (the hooks tables), a couple pages of tables that I don't think would be very useful (the carousing table), the Assembly Required farming bits, and some padding like the no-op improvements.  That's...  kind of ridiculous.  Is this standard for third-party 5e-adjacent products?  About three pages of useful content for $4 in pdf rather than paper, with a 4.5/5 star rating and Gold bestseller status on dtrpg?  I need to get me an artist and get in on this racket.

I think bringing more Stardew Valley into D&D is a promising idea.  I think playing grounded, agrarian "heroes of the wee folk" embedded in a community, with rules to back that up, would be a really interesting alternate direction to take D&D, away from both the superheroism of later editions and the traditional OSR domain game.  I would love to see it executed well (arguably Beyond the Wall is aiming at these themes, but I don't love the coming of age bits).  Five Torches Deep: Homesteads might be a decent beginning in that direction, but I think it doesn't deliver and it's overpriced.

I will not read Duels.
I will not read Duels.
I will not read Duels.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Five Torches Deep Review, Part 6: The Principle Unemphasized, Conclusions

I've spent a long time talking about some of the things that are wrong with 5TD's subsystems (most recently magic).  I wanted to say "all the things wrong with 5TD" but sadly that's not true.

Most of the issues I've talked about so far have been because 5TD went overboard on making life suck for player characters.  But eventually it dawned on me that they missed a central part of the OSR play experience while they were focusing on some of the peripheral mechanical elements.

It's right there in their list of OSR design principles: "Travel and Resources".  When I first read that it struck me as not quite wrong, but not quite right either.  Travel is a thing that happens in OSR games, yeah, and so is resource management.  But that's not the whole story; those are just fragments of a bigger principle.

I'm not sure I've quite nailed it down either in terms that a reader from a 5e rather than an OSR background would get.  The closest thing I have is "player-driven exploration".  Some might say "agency" and that would be more precise but less clear unless you already know what they're talking about.

OSR play is typically site-based rather than plot-based.  You have an unexplored adventure site, like a megadungeon or a 1200 square miles of wilderness mapped on a hex grid.  It's usually big - way too big to be cleared in a couple sessions, maybe too big to be cleared ever.  Players might have some objectives in that area, but generally not much of a fire under their ass; no saving the world, probably no deadline.  They choose where they go, how they get there, and how to interact with the locals on arrival.  They have to explore the area to locate their objectives, get strong enough to take them, and then get them home safely.  All of this happens over the course of many sessions within the same site.  Players gradually build up knowledge of the area, which allows them to better plan their next adventure.

So yes, you have to travel.  And yes, you have to manage resources.  But there's continuity and discovery and non-mechanical progress within a site.  Travel is something you get better at as you discover better routes, and it's very much part of gameplay, not handwaved at all.  Resource management is something that you get better at within a specific site as you discover places to recover resources, or shorter and less dangerous routes that get you to your objectives with more resources to spare (Dark Souls does this well).  Players are faced with lots of strategic choices, and they benefit from paying attention over the course of a campaign and making good plans based on what they've learned.  It is up to them to choose what risks to take, where to explore next, when and where and who to fight, when to flee combat, when to call off the expedition as a whole.  Their fates are very much in their own hands.

5TD's DMing advice touches on considerations of choice and exploration on page 43.  I disagree with some things here - "Making sure choices are meaningful demands complex and dramatic situations" is, I think, simply wrong.  A meaningful choice is one which has foreseeable, significant consequences, and where no option is unambiguously superior (so not a null choice).  Drama has nothing to do with it.  I also think that "[5TD] does insist that the game have a sense of exploration, discovery, and wonder" sells exploration far short.  Only a sense of exploration?  What I'm after is to pose players with problems and choices analogous to those their characters would experience during exploration; in effect to create the experience of exploring.  I think this is a good heuristic for mass combat and domain rules too - are you making players make the same sorts of choices that trouble generals and kings?

But by and large the principles on page 43 have the right idea.  The trouble is that the rest of the book doesn't back any of this up concretely.  Hence, a principle recognized, but unemphasized.

There's no advice on building adventure sites for long-term use, none of the standard tricks like jayquaying (though this might emerge sometimes from their generator system) or restocking or empty rooms or danger gradients / dungeon level or random encounter tables as a means of characterizing a place.  One might reply that most OSR systems don't explain these things either, and that's true - but most OSR systems come with paint-by-numbers rules for building dungeons that tend to achieve these properties without the DM having to understand the theory.  The example dungeon for 5TD's rubik's cube generation method is nine rooms.  This would be small indeed by OSR standards.  It's only one page so one can only expect so much, but it could certainly give newer DMs the wrong idea.  My typical dungeons are closer to 100 rooms, and many OSR dungeons are much larger.  The example adventure they give in the DMing advice has the players choosing which of three points of interest at a site to investigate, not crawling the site with strict time-tracking during exploration, and while it does strongly suggest having multiple factions in each adventure, it also suggests forcing players to choose between them.  That's not how player-driven games work.  If a faction has something that they want, players will naturally align with them out of self-interest.  You don't need to impose a "time-sensitive choice that compels them [players] to go down one (potentially) irreversible path," especially not every session like 5TD's DMing section suggests.

I think we also see this lack of interest in choice and exploration-type gameplay in the mechanics.  The mechanics for exploration and traversal of dungeon environments are lighter than even B/X's.  Trapfinding requires DMs to provide environmental clues about the presence of a trap and suggests forbidding players from rolling dice unless they propose specific things that they're trying, which is well and good.  And there're rules for different amounts of lighting, though their effects are mostly on combat.  But there's not a damn thing about secret doors or stuck doors or listening or smashing locked chests or spiking doors shut or non-combat movement through the dungeon.  There's certainly no mention of the players drawing their own map of the dungeon or the wilderness as they explore it!  While 5TD has overland movement rates modified by terrain and weather, the only other wilderness systems are foraging for Supply, ration consumption, and the same random trouble table as in the dungeon - not even rules for getting lost.  Timekeeping rules are present, but the unit is the hour (both in wilderness and dungeon), and "As a rule of thumb, a GM can count every 3-4 scenes, rooms, or encounters as one hour."  This is very loose.  5TD's equivalent to the random encounter roll is also very loose - rather than being a table of monsters, it has some vague suggestions about escalating danger level at different rates.  Looseness in timekeeping makes it hard for players to make good plans and take informed risks, and it certainly doesn't put them on the horns of dilemma in deciding between spending a turn listening at a door or saving that turn and just going for it.  I could see it sort of working for a node-based dungeon where moving between nodes takes an hour, and dealing with a node takes about an hour.  But that is hardly representative of the way dungeons are typically run.

In effect, non-combat dungeoneering gameplay is largely ad hoc in 5TD, rather than being a systematic game-loop in OSR games of D&D lineage.

Involved fix: graft B/X's exploration rules, noncombat movement, and timekeeping onto 5TD.  This also addresses issues with encumbrance and resilience penalty gradients.
Involved fix: provide better dungeon-building advice.
Involved fix: provide better DMing advice [1][2]

In closing: I have said all that I aim to say about Five Torches Deep.  I think they chose bad design goals and then implemented them heavy-handedly.  I think they also missed at least one of the defining features of the OSR playstyle in implementation.  I think a much better OSR/5e hybrid is very doable.  I hope someone will make it.  For my part, I think I am not the one to make it, as my familiarity with 5e is too limited.  If someone reading this does take up that cross, I would be happy to review your draft or otherwise consult.

Thank you for reading all of this.  This review is right around 10000 words, or 20 pages in a word processor under default settings.  It's been about a three-week project.  The text-heaviest of 5TD's pages are about 700 words, and there are 36 non-art pages, so this review was conservatively 40% as much text as the product itself, which is a new one on me.

...  maybe I'll just take a peek at Homesteads.  I did already pay for it...

Friday, May 22, 2020

Five Torches Deep Review, Part 5: Haphazard Magic

Last post, I discussed issues with Five Torches Deep's fatigue, disease, and maiming systems.  Today I will discuss issues with its spellcasting system.

I have played my fair share of casters in systems with unreliable casting.  I had a sorcerer using Dragon Magic back in 3rd edition who risked sucking the party through a hole into the astral plane to get free metamagic.  I had an arcanist in Iron Heroes who failed his roll to make the tank stronger and made him weaker instead.  I had a psyker briefly in Dark Heresy before he combusted.  And in the OSR space I've read, but not played, Dungeon Crawl Classics' system (for which it is well-known), and the ACKS heroic fantasy book's system (which remains obscure).

The main problem with 5TD's spellcasting is that the mishap rate is extraordinarily high.

A 1st-level caster with a +2 casting stat modifier (not unreasonable on 3d6) has a +4 total on checks to cast, and the DC to cast a 1st-level spell is 11, so they need a 7+.  If they fail the roll, then they have to roll on the mishaps table, and they lose access to 1st-level spells until the next time they can safely rest (ie, between adventures).

So they're going to generate a mishap about 30% of the time.  At first level the result on the mishaps table that does 1d6 damage per spell level has a 50% chance of killing (er, maiming) you.  Other results on the mishap table may induce TPK depending on circumstances of casting.  So you're going to want to cast very selectively.

Surely it gets better at high levels?  At 9th level, your caster probably has +3 or +4 in their casting stat and +4 proficiency bonus, call it a total of +8, so now you only suffer mishaps casting 1st-level spells on a 1 or 2, so 10% of the time.  Casting a 5th-level spell, though, your mishap chance remains 30%, because the DC has risen just as fast as your modifiers.

For comparison, under DCC's system, generally a failed roll to cast causes you to lose that one spell until end of adventure, and only on a natural 1 do you lose the spell and generate a mishap.  Mishaps are also described per spell, so a mishap with Fireball might make a big mess but a mishap for Read Languages might be subtler and more playful.  Under ACKS' unreliable casting system, mishaps are only generated on two sequential natural 1s in a row (ie, you roll a natural 1, the spell fails, you roll another d20 to see if you get a mishap, and on a natural 1 you do), but mishaps are generally quite severe (similar to rolls on the maiming table).  In Lamentations of the Flame Princess, magic isn't unreliable but a lot of spells have weird or gross side effects, but never just straight-up failure-to-cast-and-horrible-mishap.

I think it is fair to say that these systems are fairly typical OSR implementations of weird and unreliable magic.  5TD's system blows them away for unreliability.

If I recall my Dark Heresy rightly, casting was rolled on a d% and you got a mishap whenever you got doubles (so 11, 22, 33, 44...).  So you might successfully cast but also get a mishap in addition to the spell effects that you wanted, which was neat.  But that only gives us a mishap rate of 10%, versus 5TD's 30%.

Casting a spell in 5TD is much less reliable than using psychic powers in Warhammer.  Reflect on that for a moment.  Is that what you want in your D&D?

The only system that compares for caster unreliability that I have seen is Iron Heroes, where one of the design goals was to make a fighter-centric game and to make wizards bad.

I think the best archetype ability in the game might be the wizard's ability to reroll mishaps.  The cleric's ability that gives allies advantage on rolls on the maiming table is sort of ridiculous (and here I thought a 1-in-20 chance of death was too low; 1-in-400 is just comical), and the fighter's action economy thing that lets you turn a move action into a standard action for an ally is also strong (strong party comp: one cleric with Reforge and advantage on injury rolls and then a pile of fighters who can turn move actions into standard actions for allies, and who use it on each other to give extra full attacks once you can make multiple attacks with a standard action, every round because the rules don't say how often you can use it).  But those are gravy abilities, while rerolling mishaps means that you can do the main thing that your class is supposed to do and you might not even kill everyone.

It would be one thing if 5TD's spells were wildly good, so you were taking a big risk in hope of a big payoff.  But I don't see that here.  Sleep scales up better in terms of hit-die limit than it does in OSR games so it probably remains viable across the level range, but you have to roll to hit with it now and I don't think the HD limit is high enough that it will ever be a straight-up encounter-win.  Magic Missile scales up a bit faster than usual but again there's a to-hit roll now.  Fireball looks bog standard.  A lot of spells now require Concentration in 5TD that don't normally.  The healing spells look stronger than I'm used to, and there are a few other stand-outs on the divine list, but overall most of these spells don't look as punchy as their OSR equivalents, for the level when they become available.

Back in third edition, we had a rule of thumb that any spell that required an attack roll and also gave that target a saving throw needed to have a really big effect, because it was probably only going to work a quarter of the time.  Phantasmal Killer followed the same logic - save or die as a 4th level spell was OK because it required the target to fail two saves based on different ability scores, which meant in practice that it almost never worked.  The same is true here - any spell in 5TD that requires an attack roll needs to be really punchy, because it's going to fail (and blow up in your face) a third of the time on the roll to cast and then half the time on AC.

Quick / minimal fix: spellcasting only generates mishaps on a natural 1.  Failing to cast a spell causes you to lose that spell until your next safe rest, not all spells of that spell level.

I'm not really sure this is enough to save 5TD's spellcasters.  They also have to deal with spell components, at a rate of two Supply worth of components per spell level.  So even under the default system, an 18-Int wizard can only carry 9 spell levels worth of components.  That sounds like a lot at 1st level, but even if you're pouring your stat increases into Int you're only getting 21 at 9th level which doesn't go very far with 3rd-5th level spells.  And that's starting with 18 Int!  If you're playing an Elf, your 13 Int gets you six levels of spell components, and if you put all your points in Int you'll get nine levels of spells at 9th level.  And may the gods help clerics with low Int, who still need the same amount of supply in spell components.

There is a note about "focuses", orbs and staves which obviate the need for spell components entirely.  But as there are no treasure tables, distributing these is left purely to DM fiat.

Quick fix: make spell components 1 SUP per spell level.  This is a band-aid.

It isn't 100% clear to me whether components are consumed on a failed spellcasting check, but that would be a worthwhile clarification to add.

Anyway, as far as I can tell this spellcasting system is dramatically worse than anything I've seen in the OSR.

Next, last post in this series: the critical thing that 5TD misses about OSR play.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Five Torches Deep Review, Part 4: Resilience, Corruptions, and Maiming

Previously, I discussed my complaints about the supply and equipment systems in Five Torches Deep.  Today, issues with the resilience system, maiming, and corruptions.

Is this even a review anymore?  Maybe I should've titled this project "Fixing Five Torches Deep".

If you've been reading the previous parts of this...  series, several of my issues with Resilience should be predictable.  It sets a cap based on a stat's score, and sometimes you're gonna roll low and it's going to really shorten your adventuring life.  With 3 Con, you can only adventure for 3 hours before you have to start making Resilience rolls (at -4 from your bad Con, so you're going to fail about 2/3 of the time), and when you fail one, you're done.  You're going to be dead before the rest of the party even has to start rolling Resilience.  The penalty-gradient is even more severe than 5TD's Encumbrance's, much steeper than the fatigue rules in either 5e or any of the OSR clones that I'm familiar with.  Typically in B/X-derived games you have 10-minute exploration turns in the dungeon, and you have to rest one turn out of every six (sort of a short rest per hour), and if you don't take it, then you take a -1 penalty to attack and damage.  Skipping multiple rests causes the penalties to stack up, and -1 to damage is actually really significant since most weapons only do d6 damage and there are few modifiers.  But B/X fatigue 1) escalates slowly, and 2) doesn't slow you down, so you can still escape from encounters, whereas 5TD's resilience system goes straight from functional to immobile.

Easy / minimal fix: set Resilience to 10 +/- Con Mod.  This will cluster the party closer together in Resilience scores and cause them to fatigue out closer to the same time.
Easy / minimal fix: exhaustion reduces your speed by 20' instead of setting it to 0'.  This means you slow the party down a lot but they don't have to leave you behind.  Having it reduce speed instead of setting speed makes it interact with encumbrance.  Keeping disadvantage to all checks for being exhausted is alright; it's a lot more justifiable / reasonable than giving disadvantage to all checks for being encumbered.
Easy / minimal fix: allow players taking an hour-long unsafe (ie dungeon) rest a Con check or something to remove exhaustion.  I don't know that you need all three of these but this would be one way to make it less of a one-way door to death, and would help prevent splitting parties when someone gets exhausted.  Leave it so that safe rest always removes exhaustion.  Unsafe rest also doesn't necessarily need to reset your Resilience all the way back to full, maybe it puts you back at half-Resilience on a success.  I dunno, there's space to work out something reasonable here that isn't "you pass out in the dungeon so the party leaves you behind because Nothing Can Be Done."

A couple of other things bother me about Resilience though.  One, my understanding of one of the purposes of making resources capped linearly on ability scores is to make those scores more important.  But Resilience is based on Constitution.  Were people really dump-statting Con in 5e?  I guess that's consistent with what I've been hearing, that fights are slow and people are spongy?  But it doesn't seem like HP are that much higher than 3e (but damage does seem lower).  Were they still doing it in 5TD playtests after hit points were reduced from 5e's baseline?  I guess 5TD only actually reduced the fixed starting HP at first level, and didn't increase damage that much.  I dunno, it just kind of boggles my mind that people might have been dumping Constitution, The Stat That Keeps You Alive, often enough that this seemed necessary.

Maybe reducing HP further would've been a simpler way to achieve the same purpose?

Easy / simple fix: remove Resilience entirely and drop HD by one step for at least fighter, zealot, and mage.  I've never been a big fan of having Thief on d4 HD and they probably need the help.  But as I said before it's silly to worry about dumpstats if you have no control over your stats, so this is probably unnecessary.  But it would be consistent with 5TD's goals of Danger is Real and Weaker PCs, and it would lead to more decisive combats.

The other property of Resilience that bugs me, which I touched on above, is that individual characters fatigue out at different rates.  Besides tending to split the party, this is much more annoying to keep track of than having the whole party fatigue at the same rate.  It's also unclear if Resilience is intended to only be used for PCs or if it should apply to their retainers too, but switching to a system where everyone fatigues simultaneously and independently of Con means that retainers can fatigue too without even having to have Con stats for them.

Involved fix: bring back 10-minute exploration turns from B/X and directly replace Resilience with B/X's fatigue system.  I already wanted exploration turns for Encumbrance anyway, and this gets me "everyone fatigues at the same rate" and "gradually escalating penalties".

Moving on to corruptions.  I wasn't a big fan of Lamentations of the Flame Princess' disease rules and these seem to be a pretty direct port.  Ability score damage is a pain in the butt because you have to recalculate stuff every time it happens.  This is less bad in 5e/5TD/OSR games than it was in 3e where I picked up this aversion, because there are fewer things to recalculate, but it's still a hassle.

I guess I don't really see a good gameplay reason for any disease/poison system more complicated than [easy fix] "you get a save (or Con check).  If you make it you're fine.  If you don't, then you have disadvantage to everything for a certain amount of time because you are sick as a dog.  After that make another save / Con check.  If you fail it you die and if you succeed then you get better."  This still puts players under time pressure but you have to do fewer numerical updates and you waste less time rolling.

A more fundamental issue with porting Corruptions from LotFP's disease rules is that in LotFP, all of your saves get better as you level, regardless of your class, so high-level characters are better able to survive poison and disease than low-level characters.  It kinda makes sense that if being high level lets you survive combat better, it should let you survive other things better too.  In 5TD, unless you are proficient in Con checks or have been spending your scarce ability score points on Con, your odds of surviving a disease are no better at 9th level than they were at 1st level.  You probably won't even survive any longer, because the ability score being damaged hasn't increased much if at all.

(This lack of progression on off-saves is, I think, also part of why in 5e, all of the spells that were traditionally save-or-die either deal damage or are gated on HP - most characters' Con saves don't improve with level, but everybody's HP improves with level.  I think this is fairly clever - it really leans into HP as an abstract resource representing luck and ability to barely avoid things that should kill you, rather than HP as the number of times you can be stabbed in the chest.  But the consistent thing to do with 5e's philosophy of save-or-die and hit points would be to make diseases deal damage over time.  And I don't think this would even be incompatible with OSR philosophy!  Some OSR systems (ACKS) already have starvation and thirst deal small amounts of damage every day and prevent natural healing; there's no reason dysentery shouldn't do the same.  Mummy rot in B/X is already about halfway there)

Mummy rot brings up an interesting issue with Corruptions - if Corruptions are the expected way to implement curses, that may discourage the development of subtler, more creative curses (like "no healing" or "marked for death, disadvantage to rolls on the maiming table" or "haunted by insects, go through rations twice as fast because your food is always full of bugs").  As with 5TD's approach to encumbrance penalties, Corruptions are a big heavy-handed hammer for curses that will stop you dead, as opposed to curses that make adventuring challenging but might be workable long-term.

In any case, I think this disease system will behave differently, have different consequences, in its new 5e-based context, which will make it even nastier than it already was in LotFP.

Finally, maiming.  I run ACKS (well...  ran, and now blog about, ACKS), which among other things (understatement) is known for its Death and Dismemberment table.  5TD's maiming table misses two big points of having a maiming table at all: associating penalties to an in-world narrative cause, and ensuring that characters are afflicted fairly.

First, the outcomes on 5TD's table are about an even split between ability score damage, losing a body part, and needing bed rest, with death on a natural 1 and getting back up with some HP on a 20.  This means that if you lose a body part, you don't take ability score damage, and if you take ability score damage, you don't lose a body part.  The problem here is that (in ACKS, say) losing a body part provides an in-world narrative justification for a penalty, which slightly dulls the negative response from players to being stuck with that penalty.  It's something you can picture - "oh yeah I guess if I'm short an eye a ranged attack penalty makes a lot of sense".  5TD provides very weak in-world description of its ability score losses on the maiming table, which I think would cause them to be resented more - they're purely mechanical penalties and don't provide you with the opportunity to picture your character wearing an eyepatch as a consolation prize.

The second problem with 5TD's maiming table is that if you roll body part loss, it is explicitly the GM's choice which part you lose.  This is awful design which is bound to lead to strife, bad blood, and either accusations of unfairness or to the system being rendered toothless.  If you as a DM choose to take a body part that should logically inflict penalties, and you inflict those penalties ad hoc, you have set a precedent and any future deviation from that precedent is legitimately unfair.  If someone else loses a body part, you have to figure out some penalties that are about as bad for them as for the first guy.  So the safe solution for DMs who don't want to deal with that is to softball it and just inflict cosmetic damage (scars, a few lost teeth, maybe a finger, etc).  This is exactly the sort of contentious thing, which players care a lot about, that warrants a random table of body parts lost and appropriate penalties, and results on that table should be rolled in the open where everyone can see them so that no accusations of unfairness can be made.

I dislike that 5TD is wishy-washy about how long it takes to recover ability score points lost to ability score damage results on the maiming table, while ACKS provides provides clear-cut mechanics for trying to get yourself fixed up (though there will be side effects, so it's a choice rather than a default). I also think that a 5% chance of death seems a little low.  But those are minor complaints.  There are also some nice emergent features of ACKS' maiming system, like encouraging healers to take risks to stabilize people in combat instead of waiting until after combat, but those aren't critical.

What I'd change: roll on ACKS' mortal wounds table with a +4 or so on the d20 with nat 20 getting result from 26+ row.  Fix up results that don't make sense with 5TD mechanics (eg -2 to magical research throws -> -2 to spellcasting checks).  Write the fixups down so that they are applied consistently.

Speaking of spellcasting checks: next post is haphazard magic.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Five Torches Deep Review, Part 3: Supply and Equipment

Previously, I discussed issues with encumbrance and dump-stats in Five Torches Deep.  Today, issues with supply and equipment.

Supply is almost a good idea and I want to love it.  I've been kicking around ways to make dealing with mundane equipment simpler and less book-keeping for some years now and something like Supply crossed my mind, under-specified adventuring equipment that you can make into concrete equipment during the adventure.

But this particular implementation of Supply is tied tightly to an ability score with an in-world justification that I really dislike, and it's highly dissociated.

As with Encumbrance, tying the resources you can bring into the dungeon linearly to an ability score means that if you rolled a low stat you're SOL and there's nothing you can do about it.  Only being able to pack 3 Supply is probably slightly less crippling than only being able to carry 3 Load, but you can't go over your limit with Supply in exchange for a penalty.  3 Supply is three fights worth of arrows, or three torches, or 1.5 spell levels worth of spell components, or three fumbles worth of weapon durability.  With a low Supply limit, I'm not sure what class options are really viable besides melee fighter.

Easy fix: set Supply limit to 10 +/- Int modifier, as with Encumbrance.  I think this might hurt mages pretty badly though, since they need to carry a lot of supply for spell components and on the high end you're going from 18 Supply to 14 Supply, so you're losing a second-level spell's worth of components.  So I don't think this is a great fix and think it might have unintended consequences, but it does make low Int less crippling.  I'm not really sure that spell components are necessary to limit casting under 5TD's default paradigm anyway, so maybe you solve this by removing spell components too, but more on that later.

Claiming that the Int limit on supply represents the character's ability to plan and pack really grinds my gears.  I strongly dislike the use of Int to represent general cognitive ability, versus magical talent and maybe education.  I think that this "Int=IQ" line of thinking leads to all kinds of horrible metagaming ("well my/your character wouldn't think of that") and runs counter to player skill and agency as pillars of OSR play.  Players should always be free to make the best decisions that they can given available information, and that includes being free to pack their gear for the trouble that they foresee.  Make low Int characters illiterate, fine.  Forbid them from knowing Church Latin or Draconic, and from taking Book Learnin' skills, fine.  But don't stop their players from making good decisions.

So I think the given justification for Supply springs from a pathology, and that almost all mechanics justified in this way delenda est.

Easy fix: don't relate Supply to Int at all.  The limit on the Supply you can carry is encumbrance and gold that you can spend on it.  I am not confident that this wouldn't have knock-on effects.

Finally, this Supply implementation is very dissociated.  5 Supply weighs 1 Load, or about 5 pounds.  The supply costs of items vary depending on rarity, value, and bulk.  It costs 5 Supply to replenish an antitoxin, not because of bulk but because of value and rarity.  How does that work in-world?  Did you pack a vial of antitoxin in 5 pounds of padding?  Is it a two-liter bottle of antitoxin and you have to chug the whole thing?  Are you brewing the antitoxin and then discarding the spent coffee grounds or solvents or whatever (presumably no, because that would be crafting, which has separate rules)?  Is Supply magical, allowing it to violate conservation of mass?

What happens if you convert a monster with a shatter ability and it gets used on someone carrying Supply that might be antitoxin or might just be torches?

And if crafting is the justification for turning 5 pounds of Supply into a vial of antitoxin (and I think this is defensible from the text on the basis of the Foraging rules - you're certainly not just finding a 2L bottle of antitoxin in the woods), then there's more explaining to do - how long does it take to turn Supply into stuff in game-time?  Why the distinction between crafting a new thing and crafting a thing you already have a copy of ?  I would not generally expect having a copy to yield much insight into how to make more of a thing - buying and drinking a beer imparts no knowledge of making beer (alas!).

Easy fix: haven't got one. A sensible (associative, mass-conserving) Supply implementation sounds like it would take some thought.

There's an ambiguity looming around acquiring new equipment in 5TD.  The only explicitly-stated ways to get equipment are character generation (determined by your class and rolls on the Sundries table) and crafting.  None of the weapons or armor (or misc gear) have gold-piece prices.  The only things in the book with gold-piece prices are Supply and retainers.  Are you stuck with your starting gear forever unless you craft?  Plus whatever you can capture from things that you kill? (not that monsters have gear listed either, just attack damage which might not correspond to any weapon)  Are you really putting parties at the mercy of the random equipment rolls that they made at 1st level indefinitely?  What if nobody rolls a light source?

Torches aren't even on the sundries table (though lanterns are), nor any of the class' starting equipment lists.  Is it just assumed that everyone has torches?  Or do I need to craft torches?

I wouldn't be so worried about this if the crafting system weren't lousy.  Four independent chances of failure per crafting attempt, each of which takes half a day, and failure on any destroys all of the materials (but the price of materials is unspecified anyway).  easy fix: Why is this not a single roll at DC 20 or so that takes a single day on failure or two days on success?  That would be pretty close to mathematically equivalent and would save a lot of wasted time rolling.  I can't tell if this is overcommitment to "DC11 Core Mechanic" or to "toiling".

Maybe the intended way to buy gear is to hire Laborer retainers and have them grind away at the crafting system in the background while you adventure.

Maybe the intended way to get new gear is by either handwaving it, or by using prices from some other book that you were converting monsters from anyway.  Maybe I'm being too hermeneutic about all this - but this is a review of the text and its implications.  I feel like the existence of the crafting system, in such a short and terse book, is evidence against that proposition.  The crafting system gets as much space as two full levels of mage spells (not just spell lists, full spell descriptions), as much space as XP and Leveling Up.  It ought to be important.  But it's not great.

Easy fix: import item prices from other systems, make it explicit that players to buy items in addition to their starting gear, and ditch the crafting system.

Finally, weapon and armor durability.  If I were to compile a list of red flags for bad tabletop systems, having to repair your weapons and armor due to normal wear-and-tear would be on it.  Weapon durability can exist in two kinds of tabletop RPGs.  If bolted on to D&D like it is here, it's an isolated demand for rigor which is badly mismatched with the rest of a combat system that is operating on the level of abstraction of hit points and armor class.  If part of a system where everything is operating at the same level of detail / realism as considering the durability of weapons, where it isn't an isolated demand for rigor, then you end up with things like hit location tables and armor by location and attack-maneuvers with names like Morderhau and Zellringen (although that system is actually more like an isolated demand for rigor in techniques, while still using high-abstraction HP and AC) and every combat takes four hours.  Neither of these states is desirable.

I get why this is here.  The authors said they wanted a Souls-like game and Dark Souls has weapon degradation and repair.  But Dark Souls is a videogame and there is a computer to track that shit for you.  Of all the parts of Dark Souls worth copying, that was the one you picked?  As a DM, am I supposed to track durability for all the weapons and armor used by NPCs, because players operating in an equipment regime where they can't buy things and where crafting takes forever and where equipment degrades will be desperate for any source of equipment they can get?  Is it at all reasonable to assume that (say) orcs keep their weapons in good repair?  I've got enough on my plate already and now you want me to think about the durability of every weapon in the game that is not currently in the hands of a player character?

To which DMs from a certain school might reply, "What no, humanoid monsters and NPCs don't have lootable weapons or armor, just look at their stat blocks, there's nothing listed," to which the cranky OSR DM might reply "That doesn't make any goddamn sense, are they supposed to be doing d12 damage with their bare hands?  If my players make friends with one of them and hire him as a retainer, is he still doing d12 damage with a weapon that never degrades?  What if a PC dies and their player wants to take over the retainer as their new PC?  Does his gear suddenly magically start degrading?  Internal consistency is important! Where do you draw the line and how can you justify its existence other than laziness?  I'm lazy too, but I don't think you need to sacrifice consistency for it."

In conclusion, I will never condone a system where tracking weapon and armor durability is a normal part of combat (not the product of rare Sunder special maneuvers that almost never get used).  If you want to have weapons save-or-break on a fumble, fine.  But don't ask me to track an extra unsigned integer on every item in the world.

Easy fix: on a natural 1 on attack, Dex check or weapon breaks and can no longer be used.  When opponent scores a crit, Dex check or shield breaks and can no longer be used.  If you want, let metal weapons have Advantage on the check, and magic weapons have double-advantage (roll three times and take the best).  These same rules apply to monsters and retainers breaking their weapons.  Having armor go from totally functional to totally broken doesn't make much sense and doing it well is more hassle than it's worth.

Next post: Resilience, maiming, and corruption